COLUMBIA, S.C.—Eight freshmen in flip-flops, shorts, and T-shirts assemble around a library table at the University of South Carolina to puzzle out homework from an introductory accounting class. With thick textbooks open before them, they struggle over one complicated problem after another in a lesson on preparing a balance sheet. Several look lost. In the past, they might have stayed that way, perhaps becoming so frustrated that they eventually dropped out of school. But colleges like South Carolina, having studied failure rates of new students as well as their own balance sheets, are stepping in with safety nets.
“Why …” one student begins to ask timidly, then interrupts herself. “Oh, sorry.”
“No, go for it,” the instructor, an upperclassman, urges in a parlance very different from that of a classroom professor. He then patiently walks her through the problem.
“I wouldn’t pass accounting without this,” says Jennifer Stone of what this university of about 27,000 students calls its Student Success Center. The center is part of a nationwide proliferation of orientation programs to help students survive what can be a perilously intimidating first year in college. “It feels like a private class,” says Lauren Huleatt, who, without such help in the previous semester had to drop this introductory accounting course—a requirement for business majors.
In all, just under 58 percent of American colleges and universities now offer some sort of extended orientation or other support services like South Carolina’s, according to the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience, which is based at the university. The reason is simple. Some 29 percent of freshmen at four-year institutions fail to return for a second year, according to the center. Other surveys put the number near 30 percent.
Thus, with budgets stretched and pressure high to increase retention rates, colleges have turned what was once perhaps a weekend of half-hearted mixers into a sophisticated yearlong series of seminars and strategies managed by full-time counselors and experts. They support students newly independent after lives increasingly programmed by well-meaning parents. Nearly 60 percent of schools with such programs have added them within the last 10 years, and a quarter of those within the last two.
Prompted by studies showing that first-year students are most likely to drop out when they fail to make friends, many universities also go to great lengths to help their freshmen bond with one another.
Learning to Learn
The boom in retention programs means you can look for one that fits best. The University of California-Santa Barbara, for example, offers weeklong adventure trips before the start of the semester to help first-year students connect; they include rock-climbing, camping, and kayaking. At Kennesaw State University in Georgia, freshmen can choose to be assigned to a “learning community”—a group that takes the same required and elective courses together.
At Purdue, students in learning communities even live together, part of a first-year-experience approach the university credits for raising its freshman retention rate to a record 87 percent. The University of Georgia offers the optional summer Freshman College, where students can make friends and acquaint themselves with the campus while taking for-credit courses such as “Learning to Learn,” art appreciation, American history, and introductory sociology. And Utah Valley State College trains “one-stop-shop” advisers to help new arrivals with issues from registration and financial aid to parking.
In the past, schools took a more Darwinian approach to freshman dropouts, says Dan Friedman, director of extended orientation programs at South Carolina. “Colleges would tell students, ‘Look to your right. Look to your left. One of you will drop out before you graduate.’ Now they’re asking, ‘Why is that a good thing?’” The institution also benefits by giving struggling students extra support, says Jennifer Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience: “It’s much cheaper to keep a student than to have to go out and replace him.”
South Carolina, for example, spends $2.7 million a year on student success programs like University 101, which offers for-credit elective seminars on topics from basic study skills to stress management. The university figures these programs keep 138 freshmen a year from dropping out, saving more than $4 million annually in lost potential tuition alone, assuming 138 more sophomores, juniors, and seniors each year than there would be otherwise.
Adding in other revenue — housing, meals, and books — students who don’t return cost the university about $51,000 each over the three years they would have stayed. Given the high stakes, South Carolina provides so many support services for freshmen that they fill 14 pages of a handout on available programs, single-spaced. “Nobody should drop out given all these resources,” says Susan Weir, associate vice president in charge of the Student Success Center.
There’s also a call center at South Carolina that checks in on new students at least once in the first two weeks. If a student misses two or more sessions of a class, that triggers a program called Creating Academic Responsibility, which looks for patterns and, if there are any, tries to find and correct the cause. The university also monitors a Facebook-style social networking site called Gamecock Connection. If a student answers, “I disagree,” to the innocent-seeming survey line, “I fit in here at the University of South Carolina,” he or she can expect to hear from an adviser or administrator hoping to suss out the problem. “I don’t know that I would call it Big Brotherly. I would call it intentional building of community,” says Mary Stuart Hunter, associate vice president for the University 101 program.
Though the seminars are optional, most freshmen take them, and they do seem to help. The average first-year grade point average of students who take a U-101 seminar is 3.26, compared with 3.18 for those who don’t—even though freshmen who take the course generally arrive with lower high school GPAs and SAT scores. And 87 percent return for sophomore year, vs. 85.4 percent of students who don’t take a U-101 course. Still, whether programs are worth the expense remains a matter of debate.
In a survey released in January, the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs found that universities spent from $59 to $1,601 per student annually on student success programs. Yet only about half could credit them with increases in retention. And critics of such programs consider them expensive hand-holding. “The older faculty say it’s too much coddling,” says Friedman.
Many entering students are the first in their families to go to college. Thanks to special education programs and advances in pharmacology, there are also more freshmen with learning disabilities and mental health issues. And the emphasis on standardized testing at lower grade levels has put more weight on memorization than on writing, reasoning, and problem-solving. “Common sense used to come from parents, the church, the Boy Scouts,” says Harris Pastides, president at South Carolina. “Yet that’s what we now have to teach.”
That is because today’s parents “have really never let their children out of their sight, either physically or virtually,” says Richard Mullendore, a professor of counseling and human development at the University of Georgia. Aaron Camillo, who just finished freshman year at South Carolina, says his mother is among his Facebook friends, “and every time I change my status, she posts on my wall to see if I’m OK.” Others laugh and nod in recognition. “Here, you have to help yourself.”
The student support movement is growing beyond freshmen. The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience, which has added to its name “and Students in Transition,” is working to help transfer students, graduating seniors, and grad students. It held a conference in April in Savannah, Ga., about tending to sophomores. “If we invest a lot in the first year and don’t continue in the sophomore year,” says Keup, “you’ve just moved the cliff.”
This article is from The Hechinger Report. Jon Marcus is the U.S. higher education correspondent for the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine. A version of this article appeared in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Colleges 2011″ issue.